Ethics of Storytelling: Must You Tell Your Audience It Isn’t Real?

The revelation that writer and performer Mike Daisey had lied (in his words, "taken dramatic license”) in describing the suffering of workers who make Apple products in China has brought up issues that the new generation of storytellers must consider.

Mr. Daisey's muckraking stage play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” had enjoyed great success at New York's prestigious Public Theater.

Then, on Friday March 16th 2012, the truthfulness (evidence of "significant fabrications") of Mr. Daisey's account came under a withering attack.

Perhaps, if Mr. Daisy had limited himself to his stage show, the dollops of fiction in Mr. Daisey's storytelling might never have been exposed. But (to publicize the stage play?) Mr. Daisey expanded his storytelling to include Ira Glass's This American Life, one of the most respected radio documentary programs on the air, and various new outlets. And things began to unravel.

When Mr. Daisey’s monologue was presented on This American Life and news outlets - questions about the veracity of his "reporting" began to grow.

Fact-checkers speaking with people who had been with Mr. Daisey when he visited China were unable to verify key details in his accounts.

Apparently, the most obvious fabrications in Mr. Daisey's account were not about the actual problems in the factories in China that make Apple products. They were instead about what Mr. Daisey had personally seen on his trip (e.g., Mr. Daisey had not personally talked to workers who had been poisoned by n-Hexane, even though Apple admits some workers had been exposed to this toxin).

Mr. Daisey's defense when his fabrications were exposed?

"What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism."

Does this explanation (I'm not a journalist, but a theater artist entitled to take dramatic license with events) absolve Mr. Daisey?

If a storyteller's accounts are based on facts, is that sufficient to justify fiction that masquerades as truth?

Is a storyteller entitled to a special license to bend the facts when making a dramatic point?

Does the platform matter (e.g., the audience should assume that live theater contains untruths, because it is staged, but users listening to the radio or watching MSNBC can assume what they are being told is the truth, unless they are told it is fiction)?

Transmedia storytellers need to consider and answer these questions.

We know that chunks of the same "story," when presented on different platforms can have different impacts.

But what are the ethics for storytelling on different platforms?

Must the storyteller be responsible for the different standards that the users assume when receiving stories on different platforms?

When your story is presented on a platform where the audience is accustomed to receiving facts and opinion (e.g., a news channel like Fox or MSNBC), the difference between thought-provoking entertainment and fact-based journalism needs to be clear. But what about in a theater?

How can a transmedia artist (someone whose work, by definition, shows up on different platforms) ethically distribute a story that mixes truth and fiction across various platforms?

In a March 17th, 2012 blogpost, James Carter tried to take on some of these questions.

I think his answers are simplistic and flawed.

Transmedia storytellers often blend reality and fiction.

For example, some of us make ARGs. James Carter defined ARGs in his blogpost as "interactive stories using real world scenarios with other media platforms to deliver a story that may be altered by participants’ ideas or actions.'

As Mr. Carter notes, in the beginning of an ARG, one cannot often tell what part of the game is real and what isn’t.

This mixture of truth and fiction is part of what makes ARGs so engaging. The user must become a detective.

But, according to James Carter, the storyteller should disclose to the audience every deviation from the literal objective truth: "Whether it’s a stage play, film or ARG, letting the audience know a story isn’t 100% factual protects artists from a world of scrutiny and offers the audience an opportunity to go along for the ride with abandon."

I find Mr. Carter's suggestion deeply unsatisfactory.

In the first place, is a simple disclaimer (e.g., "This is a work of fiction") on your website, or in your program, or at the entrance to a live event, enough?

Furthermore, isn't every story - where a storyteller selects and edits - a deviation from the only standard that James Carter would accept without a disclaimer ("100% factual")?

Is Mr. Carter really saying that a full disclosure is necessary (desirable?) on every platform every time an artist deviates from the "100% factual" standard?

Is any story ever "100% factual?"

And aren't there places (e.g., the theater, an ARG, etc.) where the audience happily assumes the risk?

Is blurring the lines - without clear guidelines - a privilege that storytellers can invoke in certain circumstances?

Mr. Carter and the most self-righteous critics of Mr. Daisey are ignoring an essential truth: Isn't every storyteller - by definition, someone who uses the tools of rhetoric to shape and present something, even if closely-based on real events, that is not the thing itself but an account of it - a liar?

Questions about the role of the truth in persuasive writing are not new.

Around 360BC, Plato composed a dialogue - an imagined conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus - that touched on whether the literal truth is a necessary element of good speechmaking and storytelling.

In the dialogue, Phaedrus claims that to be a good speechmaker one does not need to know the truth of what he is speaking on: Persuasion is the purpose of speechmaking and oration, and truth is not essential. But Socrates objects that an orator who does not know bad from good will harvest nothing good.

Nevertheless, Socrates acknowledges that the literal truth is not the only measure of a good speech. Socrates says that, in addition to knowing the truth about the matter, it is also necessary to know the truth about what persuades people: "[M]ere knowledge of the truth will not give you the art of persuasion."

Your interpretation of Plato's words may differ, but I think Plato understood and accepted that even if a speaker was conveying information based on a literal truth (e.g., facts that are capable of objective verification - like the differences between iron and silver), there was necessarily an art of rhetoric (the art of persuasion) that was also a part of storytelling. Here is an excerpt from that ancient dialogue by Plato:

"Soc. When any one speaks of iron and silver, is not the same thing present in the minds of all?

Phaedr. Certainly.

Soc. But when any one speaks of justice and goodness we part company and are at odds with one another and with ourselves?

Phaedr. Precisely.

Soc. Then in some things we agree, but not in others?

Phaedr. That is true.

Soc. In which are we more likely to be deceived, and in which has rhetoric the greater power?

Phaedr. Clearly, in the uncertain class.

Soc. Then the rhetorician ought to make a regular division, and acquire a distinct notion of both classes, as well of that in which the many err, as of that in which they do not err?

Phaedr. He who made such a distinction would have an excellent principle."

Perhaps the only ethical solution to the dilemma a transmedia storyteller faces when blending fact and storytelling is to 1) consider the platform and 2) the potential effects of the "story."

If a storyteller takes into account the audience's expectations and the potential for harm if some users believe a story that is not true - and then alerts the audience to the fictions when it makes sense (e.g., when the platform might cause them to accept a fictional story as true, or where the circumstances create a greater risk of harm) - isn't that enough?

Or (as James Carter suggests) must every story contain a disclaimer?

What do you think?

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